Medicinal wine has a long history of use in many cultures worldwide, all in the name of good health.
IF we study the history of medicinal wine in China, we find descriptions of it in Shiji, a book that chronicles the history of ancient China.
It says that a well-known physician during the Age of the Warring States (475-221 BCE) named Bian Que used medicinal wine to treat his patients, indicating that it has been used in China since ancient times.
Then, about 2,000 years ago, during the Han dynasty, the pharmaceutical art and techniques used throughout China were compiled and integrated as a new genre of medicine known as Chinese herbal medicine.
Shennong Ben Cao Jing, or “Divine Husbandman’s Classic on Pharmacology”, is a classic Chinese book on pharmacology.
In it, there is a passage that goes: “Some drugs are good when brewed, others are good when made into pills, while some are good when immersed in alcohol (and made into medicinal wine). Use them by taking advantage of their unique characteristics”, indicating that medicinal wine was used as an “oral drug”. Because of this, there are many different kinds of medicinal wine in China.
Bencao Gangmu, or Compendium of Materia Medica, written at the end of the 16th century, cites 69 different names of medicinal wine.
The book notes, however, that these were made from a single type of medicinal herb only, having just one taste, so the number of medicinal wines, created by combining more than two types of medicines, is truly varied.
Indeed, over 1,000 types of medicinal wines are said to be consumed in China today.
Medicinal wine in the Western world also has an equally rich history. De Materia Medica (“Regarding Medical Materials”), which was written by Pedanius Dioscorides, a renowned Greek physician, pharmacologist and botanist who lived during the Roman era (1st century AD), lists 57 different types of medicinal wine.
However, it was not until the Middle Ages that medicinal wine truly became popular. People applied the techniques of alchemy, which was all the rage in those days, to create medicinal wine. Many attempts were made to produce tonics and elixirs.
Among the “factories” were monasteries. In those days, monks were not prohibited from producing or drinking alcoholic beverages inside the monasteries; rather, they considered it a point of pride to be able to produce outstanding alcohol.
Under the circumstances, the monks were said to have begun producing medicinal wine and liqueur to fortify their physical strength and promote their followers’ health.
In the 18th century, people in Italy and other places began creating vermouth by adding medicinal herbs to wine. Vermouth is popularly drunk as an aperitif before meals to increase appetite, so it can be considered as a type of medicinal wine.
If we look at the history of medicinal wine in Japan, we find that there is a type of medicinal wine that has been with us for a long time: toso-shu, which is popularly known as a drink to celebrate the New Year.
Toso-shu was created by Hua Tuo, a legendary physician who lived in China during the late Han Dynasty. It is said to have been used for the first time at the Japanese Emperor’s court in 811.
Later, toso-shu spread among the common people, and its consumption continues today as a New Year custom for good health in the coming year.
A strip of wood unearthed in the Nara Prefecture during the 7th century had descriptions on how to prescribe drugs, as well as the names of plants, like horseradish.
Some wood strips showed sentences that resembled a prescription, such as “I became ill and feel chills below my navel,” and “Doctors tell me to drink medicinal wine.”
One strip had the inscription, “Year 666”, indicating that they already had medicinal wine in those days.
Moreover, one of the documents kept in the Shosoin Treasure Repository in the Nara Prefecture says, “I have been working at my desk all day long, transcribing the sutra; my chest aches, and my legs have become numb, so I hope to be allowed to drink medicinal wine at least once every two days.” This document was written around 739.
When medicinal wine was initially created, it had a broad range of indications for use, and was utilised to treat a variety of diseases. With the passage of time, however, it came to be commonly used for more general purposes, such as to provide nutrients and make the body “stronger”, to improve one’s physical constitution, and to treat chronic illnesses.
In the course of its long history, medicinal wine was enjoyed because it is easy to drink. The natural aroma of crude drugs combined with alcohol’s sensual elements results in an end product that provides pleasant stimulation to the mind and the body, allowing the people to have a good time drinking it.
And this is the reason why medicinal wine has been accepted by people over the ages, not because “good medicine tastes bitter” as the proverb tells us, but because “good medicine is pleasant to drink”.